U.S. Women's Hockey Team Lays Down Its Sticks

If USA Hockey isn't interested in obeying the law, its players aren't interested in competing.
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By Parke Brewer (Source; Story) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Parke Brewer (Source; Story) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Organized labor does not require a formal union. On Wednesday, the United States women’s national hockey team showed that all you need is organization.

At 10 a.m., four players – Hannah Brandt, Hilary Knight, Jocelyne Lamoureux and Alex Rigsby – all sent the same tweet: “US WNT will not play in 2017 World Championships due to stalled negotiations over fair wages and support from USA Hockey #BeBoldForChange,” with a four-paragraph statement citing the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act attached.

Within minutes, there were 16 more identical tweets from national team players, asking for “equitable support in the areas of financial compensation, youth team development, equipment, travel expenses, hotel accommodations, meals, staffing, transportation, marketing and publicity.”

As Christine Brennan of USA Today noted, USA Hockey pays the players only in the six months leading up to the Olympics – a total of $6,000, while The New York Times reported in November that salaries in the National Women’s Hockey League range from $10,000 to $26,000. The players are not expecting to get rich here, but to be treated fairly. Things like travel expenses and meals stick out as particularly reasonable.

Youth team development also is important, not only because that should be high on USA Hockey’s priorities list anyway, but because it shows something you’ve come to expect if you’ve spent any time paying attention to top-level female athletes: a commitment to grow their game for future generations. In basketball, the WNBA’s marketing campaign features current stars of the league talking about how they grew up watching the nascent league in the 1990s and knew that opportunity existed for them.

On the ice, the U.S. women have established themselves as one of the two best teams in the world. The Americans, having won the last three world championships and six of the last seven, would indisputably be the best if not for losses to Canada in the last two Olympic gold medal games. This year’s world championships are in Plymouth, Mich., just outside Detroit, and it would be particularly embarrassing for the host nation, a global power in the sport, to either not show up or to ice a team of replacement players, assuming they could find 20 women willing to break ranks for what surely would be a one-time opportunity to play, followed by a career of being shunned by their peers as sellouts.

In its own statement, USA Hockey signaled a willingness to cobble together such a team, while also staying “committed to continuing dialogue” with the players. We’ll see where that goes, but USA Hockey has to know that playing in the world championships on home ice without Knight and Amanda Kessel, the most prominent faces of the sport, is a colossally terrible idea.

The players responded with a statement of their own that rightly knocked down USA Hockey’s claim that “support USA Hockey is implementing … could result in each player receiving nearly $85,000 in cash over the Olympic training and performance period.” That figure is misleading because $60,000 would be in the form of a bonus for winning the gold medal, and that money would come from the U.S. Olympic Committee, not USA Hockey. It also does not address the players’ concerns about non-Olympic years, like, say, 2017.

The players got support online from U.S. soccer stars past and present including Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, 1980 men’s hockey hero Mike Eruzione, former White House press secretary Jay Carney, and Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).

Those last names are interesting because all of this, remember, goes back to the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act, introduced by its namesake, the late Republican senator from Alaska, in 1978 – though it didn’t get his name attached to it until it was updated in 1998. One of the driving forces behind the initial act, which established the USOC, was the sexist policies of the once-powerful Amateur Athletic Union, holding back women in track and field.

Congress kind of has a lot on its plate right now, but the women of American hockey getting some attention for their cause on Capitol Hill can only be a good thing for them. They got it with the kind of organization and preparedness that usually serve them so well on the ice.

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